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No Second Iraq

On Iran, the parallels are inexact, but the lessons remain instructive

Marc Tracy
February 23, 2012
Yes, that is none other than Hans Blix discussing the Iranian nuclear program this week.(Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
Yes, that is none other than Hans Blix discussing the Iranian nuclear program this week.(Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

In case your memory needed refreshing, yesterday’s front-page New York Times story noted the parallel between the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and current talk over Iran. And just as important as understanding the parallel is understanding that all the American debaters themselves understand the parallel; the discussion over how the United States should approach Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons program—think of it as an alleged “weapons of mass destruction” program, if that helps—is explicitly taking place in the context of wanting to avoid the mistakes and misperceptions that led to the invasion of Iraq.

It would be incredibly silly—and one can sense some succumbing to this comforting silliness—to conclude that just as we were wrong about Iraq’s program, Iran’s, too, is far less severe than we imagine now. The latest U.N. report found pretty overwhelming evidence of the ability to produce a weapon; the last time Iran refused to cooperate with international inspectors was, literally, two days ago. There is evidence that the scientists Israel somebody is assassinating are bent on destroying Israel. And in the context of the anti-Semitic, eliminationist rhetoric routinely emitted by the regime, it feels counterintuitive, to say the least, simply to believe the Supreme Leader when he says the nuclear program is intended purely peacefully. (It’s also worth noting that while the Iraq War was a massive ground invasion intended to change a regime, even the more hawkish talk of striking Iran comprises an air strike—perhaps an “air war”—with the more modest aim of disrupting the nuclear program.)

On the flip side, in the context of the Iraq history, alarmist jeremiads like this Robert Wright post, in which he warns that a ludicrous, non-binding Senate resolution ostensibly banning containment as a U.S. policy toward Iran (doesn’t the executive branch make foreign policy?) may inexorably lead to war, make a little more sense, although I wish Wright were a mite less focused on the specific nefarious influence of AIPAC as opposed to the generally hawkish predilections of generally hawkish politicians representing generally hawkish voters.

Even the best article I’ve read recently on what to do about Iran practically begins with the warning, “the lesson of Iraq, the last preventive war launched by the United States, is that Washington should not choose war when there are still other options.”

Those are the words of Colin Kahl, who just so happens to be recently of the Defense Department. His Foreign Affairs essay provides a relatively succinct brief against war right now, arguing that we would have at least a year between Iran’s political decision to build a bomb, which we would learn of soon after it occurred, and its having a bomb; that an attack would almost surely escalate and involve other countries in the region (not just Israel, also the Gulf states, Lebanon, and perhaps Syria); that Iran is more on the ropes now than ever before, and therefore more amenable than ever before to negotiation; and that a strike may not force all that much of a delay in the development of a weapon.

Ultimately, Kahl argues—as he also did yesterday in a shorter piece—that an attack would actually subsequently necessitate the same sort of containment that hawks now decry, only made more difficult by the yet-more-increased aura of mistrust and enmity birthed by, well, our having just bombed the crap out of them. You get all the negative blowback of an attack (not guaranteed, but very likely) as well as a more difficult task of continuing to head off a bomb … and you haven’t even tried what would actually be the most assured method of prevention: reaching an actual diplomatic solution, the admittedly unlikely eventuality that, if attained, would keep Iran out of the nuclear-weapon club more credibly than any bunker-busting attack would.

In this context, the only rational reason to attack is, ironically, Israel’s. For the following scenario does depend upon the U.S. attacking Iran if its own, more reasonable red line—the decision to build a bomb—is crossed. And if you are Prime Minister Netanyahu—of a hawkish inclination to be sure, but also reasonably mistrustful of the current regime—there is a logic to attacking now to make sure everyone has to turn their cards over. It may be Netanyahu who, as Ari Shavit put it today, “believes solely in the Zionist sword,” but it is President Obama’s responsibility to make sure it stays sheathed. At their meeting next month, Obama must persuade Bibi not to bomb now by assuring him that he himself will bomb later. Of course, we’ve entered Dr. Strangelove territory here, but the point of Dr. Strangelove is that it was all plausible.

Let’s assume the U.S. (and, crucially, Israel) listens to Kahl. What are the best ways to get a diplomatic solution? Step one is clearly to maintain the threat of military action. Step two, argues influential columnist David Ignatius today, is to establish some sort of communication with the regime, offer them an off-ramp, and then convince them there’s “no alternative but a punishing war.” Ignatius writes that history shows that “Iranian leaders aren’t irrational madmen—and also that they drive a hard bargain.” So keep the current sanctions, which are currently squeezing the Iranian economy and currency, in place. And step three, as outlined by Richard Haass and Michael Levi, is to offer Iran—publicly, so that the Iranian public can know what its leaders have for their consideration—a deal that would, effectively, call Iran’s bluff, allowing an extremely intrusively inspected and totally peaceful nuclear program (Haass and Levi are dead-set against an Iranian bomb). It’s notable that Dennis Ross, too, has expressed that he is okay with this.

It’s worth a shot. It’s more of a shot than we gave Saddam Hussein (not that he deserved better; we deserved better). It it fails, Iran itself (and not Netanyahu) will, in effect, have made the decision to be attacked; and Iran’s people and the rest of the world will know it.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.